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Rural Issues

Pa.’s outdoor recreation office identifies early priorities, but some specifics remain unclear

by Marley Parish of Spotlight PA State College |

The lake at Black Moshannon State Park
Georgianna Sutherland / For Spotlight PA

This story was produced by the State College regional bureau of Spotlight PA, an independent, nonpartisan newsroom dedicated to investigative and public-service journalism for Pennsylvania. Sign up for our regional newsletter, Talk of the Town.

BELLEFONTE — A Pennsylvania office launched last year to support the state’s outdoor sector has announced its initial priorities in a new report that broadly details its mission but also includes gaps.

The state Office of Outdoor Recreation — established in last year’s state budget with $422,000 to give the industry a direct line to the government — plans to set up a business alliance and an equity fund, as well as conduct economic impact studies and policy reviews, according to the report detailing its strategic goals for the next few years.

Many of the plans outlined in the report — which was shared with Spotlight PA ahead of its public release expected Friday — involve business partnerships and community-level efforts “guided and empowered, but not directly implemented by the office.”

Nathan Reigner, the state’s outdoor recreation director, said his agency’s work — if successful — will transform the industry for residents, local governments, and businesses alike. Through collaboration, it aims to create more trails and greenways, push communities to consider outdoor recreation in development projects and health plans, and encourage people to move to Pennsylvania for its outdoor assets, among other goals.

“It is my hope that people will see headway, will see progress, will see ways that outdoor recreation is improving the lives and economic prospects of Pennsylvanians in their own communities,” Reigner told Spotlight PA. “The true measure of success of the office isn’t going to be anything that we put out in a newsletter or on our website.”

Reigner was named Pennsylvania’s first director of outdoor recreation in 2022. Nested within the state Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, he’s tasked with expanding outdoor access and bolstering the commonwealth’s multibillion-dollar industry.

The report — drafted after months of input from a 50-member advisory coalition and a strategy team of business leaders, workers, and nonprofits that helped develop the office — is a roadmap for the Office of Outdoor Recreation.

According to the document, industry experts determined that the office should represent outdoor recreation in government decisions and support businesses statewide.

The report does not include a timeline for launching the agency’s various initiatives, but Reigner said building a business alliance is the main focus for 2024.

“What this alliance will look like, I do not yet know. I don’t think anybody knows,” Reigner said. “We’re going to have to go through a process of figuring that out and following the data, so to speak. It could be a standalone organization. It could be a vertical within an already existing organization. It could be a network.”

Membership, he estimated, could include stakeholders from various industries.

The report mentions plans for the office to create a database so outdoor recreation business owners can better communicate with each other. The agency also might host an outdoor economy summit, hold biennial listening sessions, and collect data on needs within the industry.

Nate Boon, the senior program officer at the Philadelphia-based William Penn Foundation, which advocates for increased and equitable outdoor access, told Spotlight PA that nongovernmental leadership is “critical” to expanding outdoor recreation.

Boon, who was a member of the advisory board that shaped the office, hopes the state looks to national models for business partnerships, such as Inclusive Journeys, which publishes a guide that lets users leave “inclusivity ratings” of businesses based on how safe and welcome they felt.

The William Penn Foundation, he said, hopes the Office of Outdoor Recreation prioritizes making the industry more accessible for Black and brown communities “in historically disinvested and environmentally degraded landscapes.”

New Mexico and North Carolina, which have outdoor recreation offices, have established outdoor equity funds to help encourage more young people and diverse groups to explore the outdoors.

Pennsylvania has plans for a similar fund, and federal dollars could help support that in the future, Reigner said.

The office, he said, is also working with the Department of Community and Economic Development, as well as other state agencies, to use existing grants to address environmental justice, outdoor access, and conservation.

“The office is a very small unit. The work that is presented in this report is work that the office cares about, and the office supports,” Reigner said. “By no means will the office be doing all of this itself.”

Stakeholders — including outfitters wanting to boost business and elected leaders looking to promote local tourism — hope the Office of Outdoor Recreation helps them leverage the millions of public acres statewide while encouraging trips to local shops. They also want the office to focus on more than increasing visitation, and say the agency should prioritize making outdoor spaces more inclusive regardless of someone’s race, ZIP code, or physical ability.

Lewisburg Mayor Kendy Alvarez, who also served on the advisory coalition, told Spotlight PA she was encouraged by discussions about how outdoor recreation can enhance local and statewide revenues, even for businesses that aren’t selling hiking boots, renting kayaks, or running campsites.

After meeting with the coalition, she realized how the outdoor sector intersects with retail, food service, hospitality, and health. Alvarez hopes the state office helps local communities — especially in rural areas with lots of public land — to find ways to attract more visitors and grow their economies.

Though optimistic about the state’s early plans for the Office of Outdoor Recreation, Alvarez wants to see a better way to publicly track its progress. She suggested the agency use a grading system to measure accessibility at state parks and forests using information like visitation data and the amount of adaptive equipment like kayak launches, playgrounds, and trails.

“Let’s not just advertise in a magazine why Pennsylvania is a great place for outdoor recreation,” Alvarez said.

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